a.b. yehoshu 298 AJ.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Famed author A.B. Yehoshua didn't apologize for his controversial stance on Diaspora Jewry when he appeared before a Jewish Agency gathering Monday afternoon, but he did moderate the tone of many of his criticisms despite professing not to understand why they had elicited such a strong reaction.
"I didn't feel that I said anything new or especially original," he told an overflowing room of more than 300 people at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. He did, however, "clarify" that his comments were made in the context of "a dispute within the family."
In May, Yehoshua offended a gathering of American Jewry in Washington when he told them that only those who live in Israel can live genuinely Jewish lives, and that "Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel... your Jewish identity has no meaning at all."
Joining Yehoshua on Monday's panel, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the World Union for Reform Judaism, welcomed Yehoshua's tempered remarks. "He changed the tone today, and he made a concerted effort without prostituting the message," Yoffie told The Jerusalem Post.
Yoffie also offered some of his own criticism of Diaspora Jews' "defensive" reaction to Yehoshua's comments last month. "American Jews who are secure in their Judaism don't have a particular reason to be upset by an Israeli" who comes and speaks as Yehoshua did.
On Monday, Yehoshua quipped that immediately following the Washington event, he pondered the possibility that the "strong Jewish lobby" would cancel his US visa. But instead, he noted, "They immediately tell me, 'Come say it again, but say it gently.'"
This time, Yehoshua talked about Israel as the place for a "full" Jewish life. He attributed identity to the process of making ethical decisions, which is what Israelis must do every day.
"I can't sit in a Reform synagogue and talk about Jewish values and at the same time send a missile into a street [and] also kill women and children, as we have been doing," he explained.
To appear to be living a Jewish life in the Diaspora, Yehoshua said, "The Jew has to live in a sort of imagined reality and keep his Jewishness inside a sort of box opposite a [gentile] world."
He stressed, however, that he was not making value judgments about which group or place was better, even as he described Diaspora Jewry as "wasting time on all sorts of Jewish organizations."
And Diaspora Jews, he added, are here to stay. He even envisioned a time when humans will have colonized space, Jews among them, and the Jewish Agency will be sending emissaries to try to bring them to Israel - and failing, which he joked the agency would attribute to problems overcoming the pull of gravity.
However, he chided the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization for "giving up a little bit, a little too easily" on encouraging aliya.
Yehoshua's comments have been viewed as adhering to the traditional Zionist ideology adhered to by Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, but rarely heard in the 21st century, even from the major Zionist organizations.
Leonid Nevzlin, chairman of the board of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, which sponsored the event along with the Jewish Agency, praised Yehoshua after his speech as "the great provocateur of the Jewish people" and encouraged him as well as the audience to continue the debate.
Yoffie, for his part, opened his remarks by noting his agreement with some of Yehoshua's assertions.
"As an American Jew I have absolutely no problem saying that generally speaking it's possible to lead a fuller life as a Jew in Israel than in the Diaspora. In Israel you can be a Jew in a completely unselfconscious way," he said. "Israel is the sole place where Judaism belongs in the public domain."
Yoffie criticized the Israel writer for other views of his which separate Jewish nationalism from Judaism. Secular Jews, he warned, can assimilate no less than Jews in the Diaspora, though perhaps not as quickly.
Speaking to the Post after the lecture, Yoffie rejected reports that he would be "boycotting" President Moshe Katsav for not addressing him as "rabbi."
"I normally request a meeting. In this particular case I didn't request a meeting. I think it obviously could have been a little tense and difficult," he explained.
Katsav lashed out at Yoffie at Sunday's opening of the Jewish Agency assembly, declaring that, "No Reform rabbi will boycott the president of Israel. He would not have dared boycott the president of the United States."
Yoffie decried Katsav's use of the term "Reform rabbi" in place of "rabbi."
"If he were going to address an Orthodox rabbi as 'Orthodox rabbi' then it would be equal," he said. "He's addressing [me] as a rabbi with qualifications."